NEW YORK -- When Keith Murray and Serena Williams spoke for the first time, in the late 1990s, it was about comic books. The USTA massage therapist had a screensaver of The Avengers on his computer, and the future superstar, a big fan of the superhero comics, struck up a conversation.
Since then, Murray has seen Williams go from being a shy teenager to one of the greatest athletes of all time. He will be watching when she makes her comeback from time away to have her first child, and probably when her daughter starts playing tennis.
That comic book conversation was just one of countless interactions with the elite of American tennis that Murray has had during his 22 years with the USTA. During Grand Slams and other major events around the world, including the currently ongoing US Open, he works on players from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, usually through the qualifying weeks and the first week of the main draw. Friendships can't help but develop.
"It is a very familial feeling to be around these athletes. When we are on the road, we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together and we talk about everything from food to TV shows to movies," Murray, a New York native, said.
He watched Serena and sister Venus grow up, seeing them do almost everything together, especially in the early stages of their careers. He's witnessed Hall of Famer Andy Roddick's unconventional serve evolve into a powerful weapon and talked about HBO programs with John Isner. More recently, he's seen American female players such as Madison Keys, CoCo Vandeweghe and Kayla Day develop and flourish.
Some players treat Murray like he is part of their family. Once, for example, Roddick sent him a text: "Hey, my wife and I are having dinner in this tiny restaurant. Do you want us to pick anything up for you?"
The conversations Murray has with his clients steer away from their performance on the court. He congratulates them on their victories, but otherwise the relationships are "personal and incredibly normal."
Frances Tiafoe, the 19-year-old from Maryland who pushed Roger Federer to five rounds in the first round of the US Open, cracks Murray up every time they talk. During one conversation, Murray used a dairy product to explain the goal of massage therapy. "When you take out butter from the fridge, it is hard, but it gets loose and flexible when you leave it out. That is what a massage is supposed to do to your muscles," Murray said he told Tiafoe. Since then, every time Tiafoe runs into Murray, the player yells out, "Keith! Butter!"
A graduate of the Swedish Institute College of Heath Sciences, Murray started with the USTA in 1995. In 2011, he began working for the U.S. Davis Cup team.
"He fine-tunes our athletes and makes sure they are recovering with daily massage sessions," Davis Cup captain Jim Courier said. "Given how physical and fast the sport has become, having someone like Keith on our squad is a necessity. We are lucky to have someone that is great at what they do and jells with a diverse group of athletes easily."
Murray has seen American tennis grow and transform over the past two decades, with players now competing longer than ever.
"Previously, athletes played tennis for maybe 10 years," he said. "Now, it is like any other career. They start off at age 5 and go on until their late 30s."
Nutrition, cross training and massage therapy have proved to be priceless in increasing the number of years athletes play, Murray said. Two decades ago, they would hit their peak at 20 and be in decline before reaching their 30s. Now, some players don't even peak before they're 30.
He said he expects current young American players such as Christopher Eubanks, Tiafoe, Day and Keys to reach a high level and stay there consistently for years with the proper training.
"It's a solid 35-year career now, and with the right approach, these players are here to stay," Murray said.